At work, learning doesn’t occur only in a class or workshop or online. It also occurs on the job – through trial and error, conversations, and observation, among other things. Wherever and however learning occurs, feedback is an essential element. But while some feedback helps learning other feedback does not.
Feedback that helps learning
Helpful feedback is focused on the task not the person:
- It is specific.
- It is behavioral. That means it describes observable behavior – what the learner did and/or said.
- If there is praise, the praise is about the learner’s effort not his or her intelligence or personality traits. This helps build what Carol Dweck calls a development mindset.
It helps the learner see his or her progress toward the goal. This can be very motivating.
It is appropriate to the individual’s level of knowledge/experience. A learner who is new to a topic doesn’t necessarily know what to pay attention to or what to safely ignore. Too much detail can feel overwhelming. It’s most useful to give the new learner only the information they need and then stop. Generally that means: what to do, how to do it, and why.
It is delivered close the event that led to the feedback. If feedback is delivered well after the event, it could be irrelevant. Or the gap in time might mean that the individual doesn’t completely understand the feedback.
It is delivered close to a time when the person receiving the feedback can apply it. Feedback that is not applied is wasted.
Feedback that does not help learning
Broadly speaking, feedback that does not help learning is the opposite of feedback that is helpful.
Feedback that is general and vague does not help learning because the individual doesn’t know what to do differently.
Feedback that focuses on personality traits or level of intelligence does not help because it shifts the focus from the task/topic the individual is learning to whether he or she has the capacity/capability to learn. There are at least two problems with this.
- Just because someone has the capacity/capability to learn doesn’t mean they will.
- A focus on capacity/capability can lead people to believe they were born with a fixed amount of intelligence or talent – what Dweck calls a fixed mindset. A fixed mindset can be self-defeating.
Praise doesn’t help learning very much. It might feel good, but unless the individual also receives specific information about what to continue doing, praise is easy to ignore and often is. Also, praise doesn’t help build intrinsic motivation, which people need if they are going to be responsible for their own learning.
A rating or grade does not help learning. There are two reasons:
- You’ve already done the learning. This tells you how well you did. (This is the difference between formative and summative feedback.)
- When people receive a rating or some other evaluation, their focus is not on learning. It is on the rating and how they feel about it. Happy, if it was positive. Puzzled, defensive, maybe angry if it wasn’t.
Feedback in the form of leading questions and hints does not work with people who are new to a topic. Just tell them what you want them to know and tell them why.
Some feedback helps people learn. But not all feedback does that.
Feedback that helps people learn is focused on the task not the person. It is specific, behavioral and delivered close to the event. Feedback that doesn’t help people learn is the opposite.
Evaluation is a type of feedback. It is not useful for learning. However, it can be useful for confirming what you have or have not learned.
Fit the feedback to the person receiving it. If the person is a novice, provide specific information about what to do, how to do it, and why. If the person is experienced, you can be more facilitative.
Feedback is only useful when it is applied.